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Czech-Danish duo receives major award

Jiri Lukas (left) and Jiri Bartek (right), the 2016 recipient of the Eric K. Fernström Nordic Prize.P otographer: Kennet Ruona
Jiri Lukas (left) and Jiri Bartek (right), the 2016 recipient of the Eric K. Fernström Nordic Prize.P otographer: Kennet Ruona

This year’s Nordic Prize from the Fernström Foundation – one of the largest medical prizes in Scandinavia– is awarded to two cancer researchers, Jiri Bartek and Jiri Lukas, for their research on cellular responses to DNA damage. Genetically damaged cells that cannot repair their genomes without mistakes pose a major risk of cancer and other diseases.

Every year, the Eric K. Fernström Foundation presents local prizes to researchers at the six faculties of Medicine in Sweden, and one major Nordic prize of SEK 1 million. This year, the latter will be split between the two researchers, Jiri Lukas and Jiri Bartek, both from the Czech Republic, who have had an unusually close research partnership for many years, dating back to the late 1980s.

“We started working together in Brno and later continued our work in Prague. After that, we went separately abroad for a period, but eventually reunited in Prague, which is where we decided to move our research activities to Denmark”, explain the two researchers.

They have remained in Denmark ever since. Jiri Lukas works at the Center for Protein Research at the University of Copenhagen and Jiri Bartek divides his time between the Danish Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse) and Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, where he holds a professorship at the SciLifeLab.

Another unusual feature is that the two researchers’ wives are also extensively part of their work. Jirina Bartkova is an internationally renowned cancer pathologist, and Claudia Lukas is equally prominent in terms of microscopic studies of DNA repair in cancer cells.

Every cell division involves the reproduction of the entire DNA of a cell, i.e. several billion genetic “letters”. This process of reproduction may involve errors that cause damage to the cells. Other causes of genetic damage are external factors, such as smoking, ultraviolet light and hazardous chemicals, and internal factors, such as harmful free radicals generated by energy consumption.

All these damages must be identified and rectified immediately, to prevent them from leading to cancer and other diseases. The cells therefore have built-in control and repair systems.

The two Fernström prize recipients have studied how the cells slow down or completely end their life cycle when the control system signals that there is damage in their genomes. The researchers have managed to describe a number of molecular protectors – proteins that make sure that cells with serious damage are repaired – and have even managed to visualize and record these repair reactions with the help of advanced microscopy. They have also discovered markers for cells that are at risk of underging premature cell division with damaged genomes, and showed that these markers could be helpful for diagnosing cancer.

Jiri Bartek and Jiri Lukas explain that the links between DNA damage and cancer take several forms:

“We know that DNA damage can lead to cancer. However, DNA damage can also be part of the treatment of cancer when using medicines to affect the genetic make-up of the tumour cells. DNA damage can also occur as a side-effect from a cancer treatment, since these treatments often damage other cells as well. One of our major discoveries was that a certain form of DNA damage that occurs while cancer cells copy their genomes can also be beneficial because it halts progression from early premalignant tumours to aggressive cancers. Finally, DNA damage also plays a part in various neurological and immunological diseases. The knowledge we gain can therefore perhaps be applied to such diseases as well.”

The researchers have not yet decided how to spend their award money.

“We will probably let our wives Jirina and Claudia decide. We owe them a lot, including the research results which is why we received this award in the first place!”, say Jiri Lukas and Jiri Bartek.